Trauma “Re-Wires” Your Brain Part 1: The Amygdala
Trauma “Re-Wires” Your Brain Part 2: The Hippocampus
I hope everyone has had an enjoyable and relaxing independence day! As we remember those amazing men and women who did and continually do fight for our freedom, this week I will be addressing the third and final part of this blog series and how it connects to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As PTSD is a common diagnosis among our armed forces, it seems appropriate. However, it is important to remember that this diagnosis does not only affect those who have experienced war, PTSD is most simply described as a condition developed when the brain has experienced or witnessed what is, or perceived to be, a threat or trauma.
In previous blogs I have discussed 2 of the 3 main pathways of how the brain processes information: The amygdala (part of the reptilian brain) and the hippocampus (part of the mammalian brain). The last and final component is the neocortex or the “human brain”.
This part of the brain is used primarily for logic and reasoning or rational thinking processes. The cortex does not fully develop until we are in our late 20’s and helps us with understanding and thinking through consequences. It adds some understanding as to why teenagers make impulsive decisions without thinking about the consequences; their ability to do so is not fully developed. This coupled with their increase in independence can lead to them putting themselves in some “interesting” situations.
Now that you are familiar with the 3 main sections of the brain, lets talk about how information is processed. An individual who does not have what we will call a “trauma brain” will enter a crowded room and try to find people with whom they can connect. Information is first processed or filtered through the hippocampus, tapping into their emotional reactions to others and encouraging connection. The information will then travel to the prefrontal cortex and lastly the amygdala to evaluate for potential dangers. This route or “pathway” encourages individuals to connect with others.
If an individual has experienced a large amount of trauma over a sustained period of time it can actually change how the brain processes information. Our ability to adapt, as I discussed in part 1, is essential to our survival and evolution, however this adaptation is what creates what I call the “trauma brain”. If an individual has experienced multiple traumas over a sustained amount of time, the brain begins to interpret that as the norm and essentially “re-wires” itself to be on alert at all times. This is the hyper vigilance often observed in individuals suffering from PTSD. If an individual with a trauma brain walks into a crowded room, rather than looking for way to connect they will first scan the room for threats. When the brain is in a state of hyper-arousal the prefrontal cortex goes “offline” allowing for the more primal responses of the amygdala to take over. So when a trauma brain individual walks into a crowded room they first process information through the amygdala, looking for potential threats, next the information travels to the cortex and LASTLY the hippocampus. This path effectively reduces the opportunity for connection and re-enforces the pathway of trauma.
I think I have a “trauma brain” can I fix it??
The good news is, recent research has discovered that the brain continues to grow, develop and change for the duration of our life, so YES it can be treated. The bad news is, it took a long time to wire your brain this way and will take a while to re-wire it as well. One of the ways to go through this process is by long-term talk therapy. Talk therapy allows you the opportunity to establish a connection with an individual who can provide a safe, healthy and reliable interaction/relationship over a sustained period of time. This consistency and reliability allows your brain to become accustomed to the feeling of safety, even when you are allowing yourself to be vulnerable about who you are, warts and all. A counselor can also help provide tools with how to handle uncomfortable feelings and work toward a healthier pathway for your brain.
It takes approximately 6 hours after a traumatic event occurs for it to consolidate into a memory. There is evidence to suggest that if you play tetris during the 6 hours following the event, you can lessen PTSD symptoms! For more information click here.